John Lydgate: Poems Background

John Lydgate: Poems Background

What could be worse than being referred to by more than one renowned literary critics over the course of several centuries as one of the most tedious and wearisome poets in the long history of English literature? Also being one of the most prolific composers of verse in the history of English literature. The prevailing mode of critical opinion for some time now toward John Lydgate has, in other words, been thus: he is the creator of not just some of the most boring poetry ever written, but of most of the most boring poetry ever written.

Of course, when reviewing this prevailing critical opinion, it is worth keeping in mind that during the 15th century when Lydgate was at his most productive, the consideration of the worth of his prodigious output among critics of the day put him on an equal footing with Geoffrey Chaucer. Critics, in other words, have been known to be wrong. And at least one school of critics is probably wrong about the literary worth of the so-called “Monk of Bury.”

Critical opinion very often moves in a cyclical nature and it is entirely possible that if you are coming across the poetry of Lydgate as an utterly blank slate with no genuine subjective opinion having been impressed upon you in the form of objective critical analysis by others that you just might be the person to see in his more than 130,000 lines of verse exactly what his 15th century admirers saw.

That Lydgate’s poetry is still being read and that biography can still be found in books on the history of literature and that textbooks still feature examples of his craft is testament enough to the view that is poetry is certainly not devoid of any readability. The Temple of Glas is often pointed to as an example of how Lydgate is undeniably readable if only in smaller chunks. Indeed, a near-universal agreement among scholars is that Lydgate is best when his poems are short. As for The Temple of Glas, it is an example of just how lofty Lydgate himself held his contemporary Chaucer. Heroic couplets rule the day as Lydgate attempts to prove his mastery at the Chaucerian template. A template he would follow for works like The Complaint of the Black Knight and the Floure of Curtesy as well.

One of the effects of Lydgate’s truly monumental output is best exemplified by the publication of The Fall of Princes. Composed at the behest of his patron, the Duke of Gloucester, the final tally of what essentially equates to a much extended version of the Chaucer’s “Monk’s Tale” is nine books comprising more than 36,000 lines. Considering that this work was written between 1431-1438 and that the English language simply did not have enough words to help flesh out such length, credit can go to John Lydgate for actually introducing many Latin and French phrases into the English verse lexicon for the first time.

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